Levels of Programming Languages

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Programming Languages

Early programming languages were designed for specific kinds of tasks. Modern languages are
more general
purpose. In any case, each language has its own characteristics, vocabulary, and syntax.
While this page will not by any means
cover all of the available programming languages, we will look
at a number of the better
known languages.


One of the earliest computer languages, FORTRAN (an acronym for FORmula
TRANslator) was designed to handle mathematical operations, originall
y on mainframe
computers. FORTRAN was unable to handle text manipulations of any sort, and could just
barely place quoted text in its printed output.


The COmmon Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, is almost the exact opposite of

devised to permit programs to be written bor business data
processing applications, using English
like statements. It is intended to handle business data
records, so its mathematical capabilities are limited pretty much to dollars and cents, and


Another mathematically
oriented language, ALGOL (ALGOrithmic Language) does its
work primarily in terms of numerical procedures called (surprise!) algorithms.


Named after Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist,

Pascal was
specifically designed as a teaching language. Its object was to force the student to correctly
learn the techniques and requirements of structured programming. Pascal was designed
originally to be platform
independent. That is, a Pascal program

could be compiled on any
computer, and the result would run correctly on any other computer, even with a different and
incompatible type of processor. The result was relatively slow operation, but it did work after
its own fashion.


The Beginner's A
purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, BASIC was the first interpreted
language made available for general use. It is now in such widespread use that most people see
and use this language before they deal with others. It has changed over time, and is now mo
commonly seen as
TRUE Basic or
Visual Basic


Both a compiler and an interpreter, FORTH was originally developed to handle real
operations and still allow direct user control and rapid program modifications. The name
FORTH stems from its conc
eption as a fourth
generation language, but it was developed on a
computer system that permitted only five character filenames.

Assembly Language

Assembly language is a symbolic representation of the absolute machine code of a
particular processor. There
fore, each processor has its own specific assembly language,
although a family of processors, such as the Intel 80x86 series, may share some or all of its
assembly code.


First came an experimental language called A, which was improved, corrected, and
panded until it was called B. This language in turn was improved, upgraded, and debugged
and was finally called C. The C language has turned out to be quite versatile and amazingly
powerful. The C language is amazingly simple, and is nevertheless capable o
f great things.


When the concepts of

oriented programming

were being developed, the
standard C language didn't

have the built
in structures to handle them. However, C was (and
is) still highly useful and well worth keeping around, so a sort of extended C language was
developed. This language was essentially "C and then some", or C
plus (C+). As the concepts
of obj
oriented programming continued to develop, C+ had to be upgraded, and became


The search for a platform
independent language is always in progress. Java is the latest
language to be designed to meet this goal. Any computer with a Java Runtime

can run a Java program.

One of the more useful aspects of Java is that Web browsers are now designed to be able to
embed small Java applications, or "applets," into Web pages. Other Java programs, called
"servlets," will run on Web servers. Th
is allows extra communications between the page and
the server, and permits a high degree of interactivity and dynamic page generation. The
downside of using applets this way is that they inherently run much more slowly than native
programs on your compute


Javascript is an interpreted version of Java, in most respects. Its most common application
is within Web pages, where it can be used to provide interactivity and dynamic responses.
This site has a section on digital logic and logic gates,
The Logical Story
, which

use of Javascript in this fashion.


The Practical Extraction and Report Language (Perl) is very similar to C in many respects.
However, it has a number of
features which make it very useful in a wide range of
applications. The most visible use of Perl is in CGI programming for the World Wide Web.
Very often when you submit a form to a server, that form will be processed by a program
written in Perl.


this is not the only use for Perl by any means. Perl is an excellent general
purpose programming that allows fast program development on a wide range of platforms.

Levels of Programming Languages

There is only one programming language that any compute
r can actually understand and execute:
its own native
binary machine code
. This is the lowest possible level of language in which it is
possible to write a computer program. All other languages are said to be
high level

low level

according to how closely they can be said to resemble machine code.

In this context, a low
level language corresponds closely to machine code, so that a single low
level language instruction translates to a single machine
language instruction. A high
l language
instruction typically translates into a series of machine
language instructions.

level languages have the advantage that they can be written to take advantage of any
peculiarities in the architecture of the central processing unit (CPU) wh
ich is the "brain" of any
computer. Thus, a program written in a low
level language can be extremely efficient, making
optimum use of both computer memory and processing time. However, to write a low
level program
takes a substantial amount of time, as wel
l as a clear understanding of the inner workings of the
processor itself. Therefore, low
level programming is typically used only for very small programs, or
for segments of code that are highly critical and must run as efficiently as possible.

languages permit faster development of large programs. The final program as executed
by the computer is not as efficient, but the savings in programmer time generally far outweigh the
inefficiencies of the finished product. This is because the cost of writ
ing a program is nearly constant
for each line of code, regardless of the language. Thus, a high
level language where each line of code
translates to 10 machine instructions costs only one tenth as much in program development as a low
level language where
each line of code represents only a single machine instruction.

In addition to the distinction between high
level and low
level languages, there is a further distinction
compiler languages

interpreter languages
. Let us look at the various

Absolute Machine Code

The very lowest possible level at which you can program a computer is in its own native
machine code, consisting of strings of 1's and 0's and stored as binary numbers. The main
problems with using machine code directly are t
hat it is very easy to make a mistake, and very
hard to find it once you realize the mistake has been made.

Assembly Language

Assembly language is nothing more than a symbolic representation of machine code, which
also allows symbolic designation of memo
ry locations. Thus, an instruction to add the
contents of a memory location to an internal CPU register called the

might be
add a number

instead of a string of binary digits (

No matter how close assembly language is to machine code, the
computer still cannot
understand it. The assembly
language program must be translated into machine code by a
separate program called an
. The assembler program recognizes the character strings
that make up the symbolic names of the various machine

operations, and substitutes the
required machine code for each instruction. At the same time, it also calculates the required
address in memory for each symbolic name of a memory location, and substitutes those
addresses for the names. The final result is

a machine
language program that can run on its
own at any time; the assembler and the assembly
language program are no longer needed. To
help distinguish between the "before" and "after" versions of the program, the original
language program is a
lso known as the
source code
, while the final machine
language program is designated the
object code

If an assembly
language program needs to be changed or corrected, it is necessary to make
the changes to the source code and then re
assemble it to create

a new object program.

Compiler Language

Compiler languages are the high
level equivalent of assembly language. Each instruction in
the compiler language can correspond to many machine instructions. Once the program has
been written, it is translated to
the equivalent machine code by a program called a
Once the program has been compiled, the resulting machine code is saved separately, and can
be run on its own at any time.

As with assembly
language programs, updating or correcting a compiled pro
gram requires
that the original (source) program be modified appropriately and then recompiled to form a
new machine
language (object) program.

Typically, the compiled machine code is less efficient than the code produced when using
assembly language. This

means that it runs a bit more slowly and uses a bit more memory than
the equivalent assembled program. To offset this drawback, however, we also have the fact
that it takes much less time to develop a compiler
language program, so it can be ready to go
oner than the assembly
language program.

Interpreter Language

An interpreter language, like a compiler language, is considered to be high level. However,
it operates in a totally different manner from a compiler language. Rather, the interpreter
resides in memory, and directly executes the high
level program without preliminary
translation to machine code.

This use of an interpreter program to directly execute the user's program has both
advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is that
you can run the program to test
its operation, make a few changes, and run it again directly. There is no need to recompile
because no new machine code is ever produced. This can enormously speed up the
development and testing process.

On the down side, th
is arrangement requires that both the interpreter and the user's program
reside in memory at the same time. In addition, because the interpreter has to scan the user's
program one line at a time and execute internal portions of itself in response, executio
n of an
interpreted program is much slower than for a compiled program.